No One Is Coming to Syria’s Rescue

How last weekend’s chemical-weapons attack fits into the growing sectarian war for the Middle East.

A Syrian man helps evacuate an injured victim following Syrian government air strikes on the Eastern Ghouta rebel-held enclave of Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 20, 2018.
A Syrian man helps evacuate an injured victim following Syrian government airstrikes on the eastern Ghouta rebel-held enclave of Douma on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 20. Hamza Al-Ajweh/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, a chemical-weapons attack killed more than 40 people, including children, in the town of Douma, in Syria’s eastern Ghouta region. The area is controlled by opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and it is widely believed that the government carried out the atrocity. President Trump has vowed a tough response, raising the prospect of American airstrikes, which were ordered by the president after a previous use of chemical weapons by Assad, just over one year ago. Complicating matters is the role of Russia and Iran, two Assad allies whom Trump singled out when condemning the attack.

To talk about the latest news from Syria, and how it fits into the broader Sunni-Shiite divide in the region, I spoke by phone with Robert F. Worth, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and author of a recent profile of Defense Secretary James Mattis as well as the book A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Assad views the state of the civil war he sparked, how the Iranian regime engenders certain kinds of loyalty, and why Saudi Arabia’s “modernization” drive is likely to hit some speed bumps.

Isaac Chotiner: Does the attack make you think at all differently about exactly where the Syrian war is right now?

Robert F. Worth: It doesn’t change anything fundamental. Oddly enough, what it does make me do is think and worry about what is going to happen to Idlib Province [one of Syria’s last rebel-controlled holdouts], in the northwest. The battle for eastern Ghouta seems almost over, and it seems pretty clear this is an effort by Assad to finish off the last opposition in eastern Ghouta. Obviously, it speaks to his impunity—that he thinks he can get away with it, and he probably thinks that even if Trump strikes, it is going to be a symbolic strike. But in Idlib you have a lot of civilians, a lot of people who have been driven out from other parts of Syria to seek safety. There have been many cease-fire deals in Syria, and a lot of the people in those deals—both fighters and civilians—went off to [Idlib] to live. His strategy has been to corral anyone associated with the opposition, and specifically the jihadi groups, into Idlib, so that when he bombs, he can have a good pretext for it.

I happen to know a lot of people who are Syrian civilians fiercely opposed to both the jihadis and to Assad who are living there and are terrified. I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t think anyone is going to come to their rescue.

You can look at Assad using chemical weapons as him being emboldened, but he was using them before the war was going as well for him as it is now too. Do you see the decision to use them as having a more specific meaning?

I would say that he is probably looking at the broader situation and saying that there is a possibility of a really catastrophic conflict on the border involving Israel, Hezbollah, and Iran, and obviously happening on Syrian territory, but the military is less involved than those other powers. He is looking at the attention being focused on North Korea. And, who knows, he may be looking at the disarray in the Trump administration with Tillerson gone, McMaster gone, Bolton more aggressive, yes, but possibly with other targets in mind.

Are you worried about something developing between Israel and Iran in Syria? [On Monday, Syria blamed Israel for striking a military base within Syria; the strike apparently killed more than a dozen Iranians.]

Obviously for Israel, the big threat in the past was Hezbollah, and Hezbollah being supplied through Syria by Iran. But now you actually have a lot of Iranian forces right there in Syria. You have Hezbollah, which despite having paid a battlefield price during the war has also used that war as training ground and also recruited a lot more people. A lot of people who were marginal members of Hezbollah have gone off to fight in Syria. There are weapons factories there, and Israel has done some airstrikes and taken out some of those plants.

Iran, which was initially very anxious about the war that started in Syria, fearing that they might lose the Assad dynasty and have a hostile power in Damascus, can now entrench themselves for good no matter who follows Assad.

For Israel, obviously, it’s very frightening to have all these weapons that close, not just in Lebanon but also in Syria.

Just to change gears a little bit here, we just finished Mohammed Bin Salman’s American tour with Oprah, and Rupert Murdoch, and all of the other best people that America has to offer. What did you make of the overwhelmingly positive response he got?

He’s a smart guy. I think he realized that a better media strategy for him was, instead of doing more interviews in Riyadh with Western and American journalists, to just go to the country himself and do what he’s just done. He’s got a lot of charisma. He can play on the strengths of, No. 1, being our big ally against Iran, and No. 2, being increasingly willing to make friendly gestures toward Israel, which I think obviously helps him. He’s pitching himself as an enemy of radical Islamism, strangely enough. I don’t know how well that’s really going to play. It’s hard to tell from quick media reactions to a tour like this, but he’s certainly saying that he wants to change the culture.

He’s already now done the big, symbolic thing, which is allowing women to drive. That hasn’t taken effect yet, but it will soon. I always felt the biggest problem perceptionwise with Saudi Arabia in the U.S., and I have Saudi friends who say, “Why does everyone hate us?”—the reversal of the old 9/11 question we had, right? The big answer, I felt, was women. “You guys just don’t get it. You cannot treat women as second-class citizens and expect to get a good reception in the West.” He’s started to change that. He really, I think, wants to have young people, and this is starting to happen, to be able to have a good time, to soften that rigid gender separation. These things matter.

Also, the fact that he’s buying goodwill. You saw that incredible video with Trump, where Trump was sitting there with MBS saying, “Billions, and billions, and billions.”

Right, but you have Iran taking an aggressive role in the region and obviously playing a large and in many ways calamitous role in the Syrian civil war. You have the Saudis doing what they do in Yemen, and Lebanon, and Qatar, throughout the region. You have these rivalries going on all across the region, and you have Mohammed Bin Salman saying that a more moderate version of Islam is needed, essentially.

It seems to me that the fundamental clash is that the way the Saudis know how to engage in the region is via proxies and via the power that they use, which is intricately woven up with a very extreme brand of Islam. And he’s trying to ramp up Saudi adventurism abroad while at the same time trying to speak out. I’m wondering if you think he has any sense of that contradiction and how you think that contradiction is likely to manifest itself.

Well, that’s the big conflict. I think it’s most visible in Yemen, where he’s continuing to prosecute this terrible war that’s been just a catastrophe. I think it’s crazy and strange to have this guy who, in many ways, is going in the right direction as far as we’re concerned domestically, but this war in Yemen is a catastrophe. It aligns the Saudis, de facto, with al-Qaida and other jihadi groups in Yemen. After all, remember, AQAP, the Yemeni al-Qaida branch, is the one that has been most dangerous in recent years, in terms of sending bomb plots to the U.S. They’re fighting what they consider a proxy war with Iran.

It’s a very easy war for Iran, because it doesn’t have to provide much to the Houthis. They don’t really care, ultimately, Iran. It’s just a way of driving the Saudis nuts. This thing is just a bleeding sore that’s creating, as you know, an incredible cataclysm in Yemen, and starvation, and disease. They don’t show any sign of letting up.

Right, if the Middle East is going to fracture even further in some ways, on Sunni-Shia lines, and the combatants are going to be Saudi Arabia and Iran, it’s hard to imagine Saudi Arabia giving up the aspects of its extreme ideology.

Exactly. When push comes to shove, they’re going to have to rely on some of those people, however indirectly. That contradiction ultimately is going to be visible here in the U.S. too, no matter how charming MBS is. He can go on as many charm tours as he wants here in the U.S., but if he is aligned in an increasingly visible way with hard-line Salafist or jihadi elements in the region, in the Middle East, because he has to, as you were saying, because there’s no one else who is willing to take the fight to the Shia the way those guys do, then people here are going to start to recognize that.

Are you worried about an outright Saudi-Iran war?

I don’t really see an outright war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Iranians obviously have a much more powerful military, but they know that Saudi is joined at the hip, for now anyway, with the United States. They recognize that the U.S. has power to fire missiles at them from multiple directions, and so does Israel. I still think it’s just going to be a matter of proxy wars, but the Iranians have the advantage that they have people who are willing to die for them, without necessarily being paid much, all over the place.

That’s what Saudi Arabia lacks. It’s got oil. It’s got money. It’s got friends with deep pockets, but it doesn’t have an ideology that translates into a workable protective measure the way the Iranians do. Their ideology translates very quickly into something that turns against them, as it did with al-Qaida in 2003, ’04, ’05. They know that, and they haven’t found a real solution.

That’s really interesting how you phrased that—that essentially, they can each have proxies, and they each have an ideology of sorts, but Saudi Arabia is frightened of theirs turning against them, whereas Iran actually has a certain degree of loyalty. Why do you think that is? Are there religious differences? Is it that Shias are a minority in the region and the world?

Something about, as you said, the minority status of Shia Islam, being considered the underdogs, the victims. It’s worked for hundreds of years, and it’s been militarized in a very effective way with Hezbollah, which then in turn became a model for other so-called resistance groups around the region. The Houthis—the group that now controls much of Yemen, including the capital—has for many years modeled itself explicitly, in all kinds of ways, on Hezbollah. Hezbollah really is the do-it-yourself resistance army. It’s very much the model of a Shiite, minoritarian, Islamic resistance.

The Saudis have a very different history. It happened with Ibn Saud in the early 20th century. He at that time very effectively weaponized these jihadi fighters, the Ikhwan, who helped him to take over what’s now Saudi Arabia. He only controlled a small part of it, and then he took over the entire region, including the Hejaz, which is now where Mecca and Medina are, which was controlled by the great-grandfather of the current king of Jordan. He used these fighters to great effect, and then they turned against him because he wasn’t radical enough. There’s something about that Wahhabist strain of Islam that trends toward increasing radicalism and makes it very difficult for you to tame it and to make it part of a functioning state.

If Trump pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal, which seems plausible if not probable, do you see that as fundamentally changing anything in the region or just ramping up some of the proxy wars and tensions that we already have been seeing?

I think it raises a lot of risks. After all, there are hard-liners in Iran who were against the deal in the first place. They’ve been making all kinds of militant noises in recent weeks and months, saying, “If the U.S. voids the deal, we can get the centrifuges spinning within days.” Would it lead quickly to an Israeli-American attack on Iranian nuclear sites? I doubt it, but the risks would go up immediately, and any thought of economic benefit for the Europeans or anybody else would obviously disappear. It would make a volatile region considerably more volatile.